Prior to the pandemic, city policy forced entire families—including each school-aged child—to show up at a Bronx facility known as the PATH intake center to complete an initial assessment, which often meant missing at least a day of school.

PATH Center

Adi Talwar

Department of Homeless Services’ Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center in the Bronx, located at the intersection of East 151 Street and Walton Avenue.

A coalition of nonprofit service providers is calling on New York City officials to formalize pandemic-related rule changes that have made life easier for families seeking space in municipal homeless shelters. 

The city’s Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees homeless services, adjusted the onerous family shelter intake process last year to cut down on the number of required trips to a crowded Bronx assessment facility and spare children from making the trek—which often meant missing at least a day of school. DSS says it has no plans to overturn the new rules, but nonprofit providers and advocacy groups say they want to see the changes codified in official policy. 

“During the pandemic, the city made common sense changes to their intake system that increased stability for families—but they are only temporary, and could vanish at any second,” said Christine Quinn, a former City Council speaker who is now president and CEO for Win, which runs shelters and services for homeless families.

Prior to the pandemic, city policy forced entire families—including each school-aged child—to show up at a Bronx facility known as the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center to complete an initial assessment and receive a conditional shelter placement somewhere else in the city. Over the next 10 days, Department of Homeless Services (DHS) staff would investigate and determine whether they thought the family qualified for admittance into the shelter system.

Families found ineligible for shelter were forced to return to PATH to reapply. If DHS identified another “available housing option” for the family, like a space in a relative’s home, they were locked out of shelters for 30 days.

DSS waived those requirements early in the pandemic, allowing children to check-in via FaceTime or Skype and enabling families to reapply without leaving their shelters. The advocates, led by Win, have urged the city to make those “more humane” changes permanent at PATH, as well as the Adult Family Intake Center.

“Families, especially those with minor children, need stability, which cannot be obtained when they must pack up and move their belongings every 10 days, or worse, when being forced to sleep outside,” they wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to DSS Commissioner Steven Banks, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “School and work schedules cannot be maintained, jobs cannot be kept, and the uncertainty creates conditions rife for charges of educational neglect.”

The letter is also signed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Family Homelessness Coalition (a City Limits funder), VOCAL-NY, Legal Aid, the Citizens Committee for Children and 11 other organizations.

In a response to City Limits, a DSS spokesperson said the agency does not plan to rollback the changes and pointed to a Sept. 14 meeting where Banks told shelter providers about the agency’s intent to continue the current process.

The intake changes are among “a wide range of important reforms to strengthen how we support New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, including streamlining processes, like intake, to more effectively assist families with children,” the spokesperson said.

DSS Deputy Commissioner Erin Drinkwater also responded to the advocates shortly after receiving their letter, informing them that DHS will not be reverting back to the old PATH intake rules.

“While we do not agree with the characterizations in the letter regarding the pre-pandemic process, as Commissioner Banks has communicated during weekly community calls that he has conducted since the pandemic began, we have no plans to change our modifications to the shelter application process that you reference with approval in your letter,” Drinkwater said.

Quinn, the head of Win, said the agency’s pledge still isn’t enough.

“Do the right thing, make these new policies permanent, and treat homeless families with the dignity and respect they deserve,” she said.

Win previously documented problems with the family intake process in a July report. The organization encouraged DHS to make the application process easier, stop forcing children to miss school and take families seeking shelter at their word when they say they cannot return to a previous residence.

A City Council spokesperson said the legislative body is reviewing the advocate’s proposals for making the current intake changes permanent. Mayor de Blasio’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Families with children make up the bulk of the homeless shelter population in New York City, accounting for about 70 percent of DHS shelter residents before the pandemic. Hundreds of other families live in shelters run by the Human Resources Administration, Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Housing Prevention and Development.  The vast majority of  DHS shelter residents are Black or Latino, and an untold number of families, particularly those headed by a single mother, remain at risk of eviction and homelessness.

But over the past two years, the number of families entering the DHS shelter system has dropped significantly, as a statewide eviction moratorium keeps many at-risk New Yorkers in their homes. There were 8,500 families, with 14,798 children, staying in a DHS shelter on Sept. 30, according to the city’s most recent daily census.

In August, the average daily family shelter population reached its lowest point in a decade, though the length of time families with children remain in shelter increased last year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

READ MORE: NYC Children Have Longer Stays in Shelter, Even as Family Homelessness Declines

Various city initiatives, like a right to an attorney in housing court, “one shot deal” emergency cash assistance and rental subsidies have also driven down the number of families in shelters in recent years. De Blasio and DSS have credited the work of city workers and thousands of nonprofit staff members.

Advocates warn that the end of the state eviction protections could spur another sharp rise in homelessness, demonstrating the need for more affordable housing and speedier exits out of shelter for families and individuals.

De Blasio, too, has sounded the alarm on a pending surge in homelessness.

“We are about to go over a cliff here in this city, in terms of people potentially losing their housing,” he said in July 2020.